12 July 2018

Liberia - Bong Residents Suffering Aftermath of Mng Gold Cyanide Spillage

Kokoyah District, Bong County — Beatrice Tarr, 38, began experiencing skin itching moments after she bathed in Sein Creek, a major water source for residents in Saywehta Town.

The creek was one of several water sources polluted by MNG Gold, a Turkish mining company.

For the last year, Tarr has been seeking medical treatment for the sores that developed on her body because of the constant itching.

There are scars on her stomach and legs.

"All of us who took bath at that moment experienced similar symptom before the company through its Public Relations Officer Lloyd Ngaway advised us not to take bath in the water again," she said.

The creek got infected after an MNG reservoir containing diluted chemicals overflowed with rainwater and spilled into the creek.

According to a recent report by the National Bureau of Concession (NBC) sent to the Liberian Senate shows that three million gallons of diverse toxic chemicals were released in the community by MNG and will remain in the environment for decades to come.

Some of the chemical spill into the community includes cyanide, mercury and lead, which are highly dangerous to the community residents, their water source and flora and fauna.

MNG Mining Limited took over from the American-Liberian Mining Company (AmLib) in 2013. The company began mining gold in August 28, 2015 with a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to the EPA, the company did not follow best practices aimed at averting environmental pollution.

Under the Mineral Development Agreement signed between AmLib and the government of Liberia in 2005, the company is required to ensure that citizens' life is protected from chemicals and care for citizens in case of health problems arising from exposure to chemicals.

Last year, the National Bureau of Concession (NBC) accused the company of failing to intervene after residents became from the chemical spill.

The company did not provide adequate medical attention to the residents who became ill after using the contaminated creek, according to NBC.

The report was submitted to the Legislature in November 2017 for review, according to Bong County Senator Henry Yallah, a native of Kokoyah District.

Nearly 10 months after the spill, the Legislature has not made a decision on the matter.

County officials said 30 people became ill as a result of pollution of the creek due to the chemical spill. Some of the victims complained about vomiting and bloody urine, stool or pupu.

Marie Wamah, 30, and Tarr said the company took them to Phebe Hospital after they suffered internal bleeding.

"This thing has been one year now and no improvement," Wamah said.

Fulton Boe and Elijah Weagar said their eyes started itching after they bathed in the creek.

They went to John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia, but they continue to experience the same problem.

"My eyes itch a lot and at times I can't see well, most especially when the sun is hot," Boe said.

Out of the 30 people who became ill, 10 are still seeking medical attention and the remaining 20 are said to have recuperated, said District Superintendent Conteh Yallah.

Kokoya's residents have relied on Sein Creek to major water source - to bath, do laundry and drink.

Young Paegar, an environmental health officer at Phebe Hospital, said cyanide, one of the three chemicals that spilled in the creek, is dangerous.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, people exposed to cyanide can within minutes develop dizziness, headache, vomiting, rash, rapid heart rate and weakness. Other symptoms include restlessness, convulsions, loss of consciousness, low blood pressure, lung injury, respiratory failure leading to death, slow heart rate.

Survivors of cyanide poisoning may develop heart, brain and nerve damage, according to the CDC.

Paegar said MGN Gold failed to provide proper medical treatment for those sickened with cyanide poisoning.

"Cyanide is a dangerous chemical that needs proper medical checkup and not just taking patients to the hospital for two or three days," he said. "There should have been a lot of intervention by the company, but our investigation established that the company didn't do much."

"Cyanide is a chemical containing carbon-nitrogen. It is harmful to humans and can lead to death," Paegar said. "It is a slow poison."

Lloyd Ngaway, MNG's media relations officer, said the company obtained health certificates from Phebe Hospital indicating that all of those affected as a result of the spill received proper medical treatment and were discharged.

The symptoms people are showing after nearly a year since the spillage in Saywehta is something else, not the chemical spill, Ngaway said.

"There were minor illnesses as the result of the chemical spillage. Phebe Hospital and JFK Hospital said that the victims are well."

Tormue Peabody, one of the victims, said the creek smelled like someone fired "a grenade in it."

"Initially, we noticed the water was testing different from other days, but residents didn't know what was happening," he said.

Peabody said his body aches and he vomits constantly.

"Rashes have taken over my entire body," he said. "I still feel pain and sore in my stomach. I can't sleep because my skin can just be itching. All the sores you are seeing is from what happened last year."

Marcus Johnson said he developed stomach pains and itchy skin after he drank water from the creek. He sought treatment at the local clinic.

The chemical spill also affected the farms in the area. Farmers relied on the creek to water their crops.

Lydia Scott didn't get sick, but the pollution affected her rice crops. Some farmers have abandoned farming since the spillage.

"Things are difficult for us because the chemical from the company's reservoir can destroy our farms whenever it spills over," she said.

As a result of the contamination at Sein Creek, residents now walk two miles for water.

Alvin Flomo, another resident of the affected community, said he no longer uses the creek. He walks two miles away to fetch safe drinking water from a well.

MNG Gold's predecessor, AmLib, built a hand pump in Saywehta a few years ago, but it no longer works.

MNG informed residents about the spill on September 29, two days after the incident. Five hours after informing the residents, the company transported citizens to Phebe Hospital.

In addition to providing medical care, MNG said it distributed 44 bags of rice, sacks of water and other food items to those exposed to the chemicals.

The firm said it installed three water tanks to provide safe drinking water, but the tanks were removed a month after the incident.

Last year's spill was the second time MNG Mining has contaminated the Kokoyah area.

In 2016, one of the company's trucks carrying chemicals fell in another town, destroying residents' farm and leaving three people ill.

On June 7, Saywehta residents wrote MNG asking the company to stop dumping lethal chemical or contents on their farms.

The letter noted that the 2017 cyanide spill affected citizens physiologically and medically.

As custodians of the land hosting MNG, the citizens urged the company to address the medical and psychological effects of the chemical spill, the citizens said.

Moses Sondah, head of the Saywehta Steering Committee, said the district is rich in resources, but citizens are not feeling the impact of the gold that MNG exports from the community every month.

Kokoyah's 4,000 residents live mostly in huts. The roads are impassable during the rainy season.

"Imagine the road leading to the company's site is deplorable," Sondah said. "We the citizens are not benefiting from the presence of the company here."

Under the MDA, MNG contributes $12,000 a month or $84,000 a year to Bong County's Social Development Fund for its mining operations in the district.

Kokoya receives $16,000 a year, $10,000 covers tuition for 15 Kokoya students at Cuttington University and the remaining $6,000 for development of the district.

The agreement also requires that 60 percent of the company's employees come from the district. MNG's workforce of 150 includes 113 Kokoya citizens, Ngaway claims.

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